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As some RealityChek regulars may have noted, I’m spending somewhat less time lately batting down ill-conceived, off-base, and downright incoherent individual books or articles etc on key subjects like trade and globalization, foreign policy, and immigration. It’s not that there’s any less “nonsense out there” these days. Goodness knows there remain enough mouthpieces of the Offshoring-, Forever Wars-, and Cheap Labor-Lobbies in and out of the Mainstream Media paid handsomely cranking out this bilge.

It’s just that they’re clearly so much less important these days, as the American political system has so markedly been ignoring their missives. I mean, even a longtime China coddler and offshoring trade deal supporter like President Biden knows – at least politically – that these stances don’t fly any more. Not that enough progress has been made. But champions of what I think can fairly be called the pre-Trump conventional wisdom in these areas are increasingly giving off those “wrong side of history” vibes – and lashing out at Trump policies in ever more desperate and arguably deranged ways.

I’m making an exception today, however, because Chad P. Bown’s new article in Foreign Affairs blaming the former president significantly for the global semiconductor shortage, appeared in such a (still) influential publication, and is such a thoroughly pathetic example of the marginalized trade policy establishment’s Get Trump and Trumpism obsession.

For the last few years, Bown has served as the MSM’s go-to economist for swipes at Trump’s tariffs and trade wars – every single one of them. As a result, it’s almost inevitable that, with Trump out of power, and Mr. Biden now having retained for months the principal Trump China and metals tariffs – every single one of them – that he’d be looking for new ways to show how mistaken these measures have been.

Although Bown admits that the unprecedened stop-start nature of the CCP Virus-era U.S. economy, the suddently booming demand for microchip-intensive infotech products during the pandemic, and weather-related production disruptions all contributed substantially to the shortage, he also claims that Trump’s trade and tech policies also “squeezed supply” – by definition enough to write about.

His main arguments: First, Trump’s tariffs on semiconductors made in China reduced U.S. imports on net because American purchases from other countries didn’t make up for those chips. Second, his restrictions on the sale of American-made semiconductors to Huawei led the Chinese telecommunications gear giant and other Chinese tech companies to start hoarding chips from everywhere for fear of inadequate overall supplies, and left fewer semiconductors for other users to buy. Third, these curbs on sales of U.S.-made semiconductor to such an enormous customer discouraged chip-makers from all over the world from investing in production capacity in the United States in favor of building factories that could supply China from elsewhere.

But even though, as noted above, Bown admits that other culprits deserve responsibility as well, he not only downplays their effects. He completely ignores the impact of much more fundamental, indeed root, causes. Highly conspicuous, for example, are the consequences of decades of the kinds of offshoring-happy trade policies so strongly supported by Bown and his Offshoring Lobby-funded think tank, the Peterson Institute for International Economics. These policies persuaded U.S.-owned semiconductor manufacturers to move to China and the rest of East Asia much production capacity that could have been installed in America – in large part because they sent to China and the rest of East Asia so much production of the infotech hardware production that buys so many semiconductors.

Nor does Bown mention the dangerously shortsighted decisions of so many U.S.-owned semiconductor companies to eschew manufacturing for a “fabless” business model of researching and designing chips and then farming out the production “foundries” run by separate contract companies – mainly in Asia. Largely as a result, the growth of inflation-adjusted American semiconductor output fell by fifty percent between the U.S. economic expansion of 2001-2007 and the longer expansion of 2009-2019. (See my National Interest article on the subject from last October for the statistics presented above and below.) 

The growth during the latter period (73.68 percent) seems impressive in isolation. But it wasn’t nearly enough to prevent the U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity from sinking to 12 percent – less than half the percentage in 1990. And it’s not like the growth of this global capacity has been killing it lately, especially considering it’s an archetypical “industry of the future.”

You wouldn’t know this if you if you were relying solely on Bown, but by one key measure, this capacity’s 2013-2019 cumulative expansion (14.29 percent, as shown in the chart below (which comes from the main trade association of the global semiconductor manufacturing equipment industry) was actually slower than the after-inflation growth of total global output of everything (18.29 percent). And if that’s not a surefire formula for a global shortage to me, tariffs and export controls or not, I don’t know what is. Nor do Chad Bown, or the Foreign Affairs editors who published a diatribe that’s factually unhinged even by the rock bottom standards of Mainstream Media coverage of U.S. trade policy.      

200mm Fab Outlook Chart